‘You must protect children in the schools’
O’Keeffe says ruling shows State should never have defended case as it did
File photograph of Louise O’Keeffe arriving at Bandon circuit court, Co. Cork in 2007. Photograph: Provision
Louise O’Keeffe has warmly welcomed the European Court of Human Rights ruling in her favour and called on the Government to immediately introduce legislation to provide protection for children attending all schools in the state.
Speaking at the offices of her solicitor, Ernest Cantillon in Cork, Ms O’Keeffe said that she was relieved at the outcome but she was far from joyous as she felt that she should never have had to take her case to Europe if the Irish state had acted properly in the first place.
“The message I have today for the Department of Education on foot of this ruling is that ‘you must protect children in the schools, it’s a right that the children have and it’s now been recognised in Europe and it must be done,” said Ms O’Keeffe, a mother of two from West Cork.
Ms O’Keeffe was abused as an eight year old girl by school principal, Leo Hickey while attending Dunderrow National School in the early 1970s and was one of 21 former pupils who made complaints of abuse by Hickey to gardaí in 1996.
A garda investigation followed and Hickey pleaded guilty to 21 sample counts from 386 charges at Cork Circuit Criminal Court in 1998 and he was jailed for three years for the abuse and Ms O’Keeffe later won €305,104 in damages in a High Court action against Hickey.
Ms O’Keeffe said the ECHR ruling showed the case should never have been defended as it was by the State and if the state had acted on a complaint about Hickey made to a local priest and chairman of the board of management in 1971, she would not have been abused.
There was a duty on the Department of Education to ensure that there was a procedure available to all persons running the schools to deal with abuse and it had failed to do so and that was her motivation when bringing the case through the Irish courts and going to Europe.
“The Irish State owes every single child who was abused inside in a national school a very comprehensive apology... it isn’t something I should have to demand it all - it should be something that should be given immediately,” she said.
“The protection of children in schools has always been my motivation - nothing else- you don’t go out and bear your soul in court in the way that I had to do for money - you do it because there is something wrong and it needs to be rectified,” she said.
Ms O’Keeffe said she only began to fully appreciate the impact that the abuse had on her life when she heard one of her fellow pupils give a victim impact statement at Hickey’s trial and realised that she could have been describing her life.
“I thought, ‘She’s not describing her life, she’s describing my life’, and I realised that my life could have been so much different, my life should have been different, it should have been better, it should have have been way more relaxed,” she said.
Ms O’Keeffe paid tribute to gardai who investigated the case and to her solicitor, Ernest Cantillon and his staff including solicitor Mary Scriven who attended in Strasbourg for the judgement and said they had been a great support to her throughout.
Mr Cantillon said the ECHR judgement showed the Irish State’s defence to be “a fallacy” and he believed the correct course now would be for the State Claims Agency to engage with the 135 people with actions pending for damages over abuse by their teachers in schools.
“What lies ahead now is for the other eight year old girls like Louise is that hopefully the State will put in place a statutory framework to prevent further abuse and in terms of people who were abused in the past, they need to look to those people and say, ‘We’ve wronged you’.”
“There is no legislation in place now to protect the eight year old like Louise and it’s sending the wrong message to both the abuser and the victim to say that we don’t think enough of you because we’re not going to put this into statutory form - it’s sending the wrong signal.”
“Louise was never motivated by money as long as I’ve known her... her concern was the protection of other children to make sure a mechanism was put in place in the future and I think she’s gone a long way towards achieving that by what’s happened today.”